Civic News
Economics / Pittsburgh / Urban development

A Brookings fellow wants to know why majority-black towns suffer from disinvestment

The latest from's Open Data PGH series: A native son returns to Wilkinsburg to collect data for its future.

Why has Wilkinsburg stagnated while fellow Pittsburgh suburbs have thrived? (Photo by Flickr user michaelgoodin, used under a Creative Commons license)

Editor’s noteThis article first appeared on as part of the Open Data PGH series, which covers Pittsburgh’s civic tech community, and was written by the project’s reporter, Kim Lyons. See the full series here and sign up for the Open Data PGH weekly newsletter here.

Andre Perry grew up in Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County, and would run along Penn Avenue while training for the high school cross-country team.

The street that the journalist, activist and former founding dean of Davenport University’s College of Urban Education followed from then-bustling Wilkinsburg, running past businesses such as G.C Murphy and Isaly’s into then-quiet East Liberty, looks a lot different now. East Liberty is vibrant, while Wilkinsburg is desolate.

But the economic development that has turned East Liberty into one of Pittsburgh’s hottest (and most gentrified) neighborhoods has not spilled over into Wilkinsburg. And Perry says there’s no good reason why that should be.

“No one invests in deficits,” he said. “No one invests in problems. Certainly, there are problems and concerns in majority black cities, but if you perceive them as filled with problems, generally, you’ll invest in other people to fix them. My goal is to highlight, map, illuminate assets — that happen to be black — in these communities that we could build upon for economic growth and shared prosperity.”

In his role as the David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, Perry is collecting data on majority-black cities like Wilkinsburg to highlight the differences in public fiscal commitments from majority-white cities.

According to his research, based on census figures, there are more than 1,200 majority-black places in the continental U.S., most of which are rural towns with populations under 2,500. As of the 2010 census, Wilkinsburg (officially a borough) had a population about 15,500 people, and its population was 62 percent black. Pittsburgh has a black population of 24 percent.

But while East Liberty has received nearly $1 billion in investment over the past 20+ years, Wilkinsburg has languished, losing most of the prominent businesses that once populated Penn Avenue. And although there has been a resurgence of late, with efforts underway to revitalize parts of Wilkinsburg, it’s got a long way to go to reach its closest neighbor.

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Andre Perry. (Courtesy photo)

Andre Perry. (Courtesy photo)

Companies: Brookings Institution /
Series: Open Data PGH

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